Chester Nez, the last of the original “Navajo Code talkers” who encrypted US military communications during World War II, died this Wednesday.
In a time when Native Americans were still widely discriminated against by the US government, the code talkers created a code based on the Navajo language. The idea to use Navajo as a code came from civil engineer Philip Johnston, a missionary’s son who was raised on a reservation. He believed Navajo would make an ideal military code because at the time there were no written records of it, and it is so linguistically distinct that even speakers of related languages can’t understand it.
Recruited by the Marines, a group of 29 Navajo men (some, including Chester Nez, were really just boys) joined the Marines and developed a code based on their native language.
The code was used in Asia to keep important information from being intercepted by the Japanese. It was never broken.
Ironically, like many Native American children, Chester Nez was sent away to a government-run boarding school as a child. There, he was punished for speaking Navajo. As Simon Moya-Smith wrote on CNN:
“One can’t help but think that, had it not been for the resilience of the Navajo people and their resistance to these early oppressive American policies, it’s quite possible that World War II could have ended differently.”
Even after the war, the Navajo Code Talkers were sworn to secrecy for decades after their service. However, in 1982 their efforts were officially recognized by President Ronald Reagan, and in 2001 the original 29 Navajo code talkers were awarded Congressional Gold Medals.
Nez’s memoir, Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII, was published in 2011.
In a 2002 interview with Larry King, Nez said:
“Our Navajo code was one of the most important military secrets of World War II. The fact that the Marines did not tell us Navajo men how to develop that code indicated their trust in us and in our abilities. The feeling that I could make it in both the white world and the Navajo world began there, and it has stayed with me all of my life. For that I am grateful.”